CROCODILE AND LEOPARD by Gavin Chappell
14. The Deluge
Marcus panicked. This must be the rising of the waters that created the flooding of the Nile in Egypt, yet it was a month before the beginning of the Sothic Year. As the rain hissed down and water continued to pour over the escarpment, he realised that it stood to reason that the waters would rise earlier this far up the Nile.
‘I thought you knew this country!’ he yelled at her. ‘Didn’t anyone know this was going to happen? What did the pigmies tell you?’
‘It floods here,’ Candace replied, ‘that’s why the jungle is so lush – but not until next week, typically. This is unusual.’
That sounded like an understatement to Marcus.
The pygmies stared about them in horror. The anthropophagi down in the jungle had not seen the coming flood but they must have heard something, since they were peering round suspiciously as the rain poured down.
‘What do we do now?’ Marcus shouted.
‘The only place we will be safe,’ Candace cried, ‘is up there!’
She pointed at the top of the rock. Queen Azo and the rest of the anthropophagi stood in the rain watching the water rushing over the escarpment with expressions of horror.
Denk saw her gesture, and turned to harangue his warriors. At once, they halted in their tracks and began to swarm up the wet cliffs.
‘Come,’ Candace said commandingly to Marcus. They followed as if the Furies were at their heels.
The anthropophagi met them at the top of the cliff, thrusting at them with spears, slashing with long knives. Queen Azo stood amidst them, grinning with her lips blood-red while the rain poured down her face. She shouted encouragement to her troops.
As Marcus joined the little warriors, he saw two pigmies spitted on spears and cast down the crag, to where the rest of the anthropophagi seemed to be contemplating ascent. He realised that despite their good position, the anthropophagi with Queen Azo were very few; most of their strength lay below. And a tidal wave of water was smashing through the jungle towards the foot of the crag, driving frightened giant saurians before it.
He grappled with one anthropophage, stamping down on his foot and seizing him by the arms. The Azanian struggled, eyes rolling with fear. He stank like a butcher’s shop; the rain had not washed off his cannibal stench. Marcus tried to push him down the crag, where even now his fellows were beginning to advance as they saw the death that rolled towards them through the green trees. The anthropophage bared his filed teeth and tried to bite Marcus. Terrified, Marcus flung the anthropophage to one side. Slipping on the wet rocks the Azanian hunter fell screaming from the crag – straight into the waters that even now surged around its feet.
Marcus turned and another anthropophage thrust a spear at him.
The procurator stared down at the spear-point in horror, razor-sharp iron inches from his chest. He looked up to see bloodshot eyes in a rain-streaked painted face glaring at him from beneath nodding plumes. His own spear was at his side, and he could not lift it in time to escape certain death.
The bloodshot eyes glazed and the anthropophage groaned, clutched at his groin and fell to the wet rocks. His fall revealed the small figure of Denk. The pigmy had a bloody spear in his hands and a feral grin.
‘Come on,’ Marcus said, illustrating his words with a gesture.
Together they fought their way up to the top of the crag. All around them, pigmies fought anthropophagi while the rain hissed down, and the waters roared and raged around the rock and poured into the chasm beyond. The anthropophagi who had been climbing up after the pigmy legion had almost all been dragged away by the downpour and flood.
Marcus saw a crocodilopard swimming past desperately in the rain stippled waters, and he felt a pang as he remembered his true mission here. In the distance, other giant lizards perched on rocky outcrops, waiting nervously for the rain to cease and the waters to subside.
Marcus and Denk reached the top. By the half-flooded hollow stood Queen Azo, a handful of anthropophagi at her side. At her feet sprawled Didius Seneca, though whether dead or alive Marcus did not know.
Just as he burst from the vertical melee, Candace appeared with several pigmies at her back, including those mounted on crocodile-tortoises.
‘I thought you dead,’ she told Marcus. ‘What happened?’
‘I met trouble,’ he said. ‘Denk saved me.’
The pigmy trotted forward to greet Candace. They turned towards the anthropophagi crowding round Queen Azo.
‘We are all marooned here until the waters subside,’ Candace called. ‘Shall we remain foes?’
Queen Azo sneered. ‘Only one of us will leave this rock.’
‘The waters will surround us until the end of the rainy season,’ Candace replied. ‘We must unite to survive.’
‘I do not intend to stay here long,’ Queen Azo told her. ‘We still have much ivory. When the waters calm, my warriors and I will take our spoils and leave for Axum. You will remain behind, alive or dead.’
‘And how will you leave?’ Candace asked. She indicated the ongoing downpour and the waters that surrounded the rock, which had turned the whole of the jungle beneath the escarpment into a swamp.
Despite the lashing rain winged serpents circled above them. Still pigmies and anthropophagi fought on the crag side. Marcus knew there was nothing to eat, up on this rock; nothing for him, at least. Plenty for winged serpents – or anthropophagi.
Queen Azo strutted forward, her warriors following, their shields held up to protect her from rain or attack, their spears at the ready, the rain-soaked plumes of their headdresses drooping as they approached. The queen halted a few yards from Candace and the remnants of her pigmy legion.
‘It is between us now, sister,’ Azo said. ‘The final contest. When the rains cease for long enough for the waters to grow quiet, my anthropophagi will make canoes for my people to cross the waters and we will climb up the escarpment, then leave this valley with our ivory. But I shall not leave you here.’
‘You are wrong, sister,’ Candace spat. ‘It is I who will leave, and you whose bones will rot in the rain here.’
Queen Azo grinned wildly, and Marcus saw with a thrill of sudden horror that she, too, had filed her teeth like her anthropophagi warriors.
‘Then we shall fight it out here. Now! Prepare yourself for death, sister!’
Candace brandished her spear. ‘It is you who must greet the god Mahram when I despatch you to his gloomy land,’ she replied. ‘Come out from amongst your anthropophagi and fight me like a queen.’
Queen Azo bared her filed teeth again, and seized a spear from one of her warriors a hippopotamus-hide shield from another. Clashing spear against shield, she stepped forward lithely.
Candace thrust with her spear. Queen Azo deflected the attack with her long oval shield and lunged as she did so. Candace leapt back. The two women, identical in appearance, equally matched in strength, circled each other; their bare feet padded on the drenched sandstone as they did so. All around them, the anthropophagi and pigmies watched the fight that might determine the fate of them all. Marcus too looked on in tense fascination. All was quiet except the hiss of the rain and the rushing of the surrounding waters. Winged serpents circled overhead.
As he watched the women circling, he noticed one of the anthropophagi, the one the queen had spoken with, quietly moving away towards the edge of the crag. He wondered what that man intended to do. Was he deserting his mistress? But how could he hope to escape when the rain-soaked rock was surrounded by the swiftly flowing floodwaters?
Candace lunged. Queen Azo leapt back, raising her shield as she did so. Candace jumped back. Azo followed her. Candace leapt to one side and her sister stumbled as her toes collided with a snag in the rocky floor; Candace thrust when Queen Azo’s ebony flesh was revealed as she flung her arms out to regain balance. The spearhead seemed to lick her hide and red blood leaked out across her rain wet skin. The anthropophagi gave a great groan. Queen Azo leapt back, snarling.
They circled again.
‘A flesh wound, sister,’ Queen Azo said painfully. ‘Soon washed away. You must do better than that! What would Father think, that his favourite daughter was so weak a warrior?’
‘Father trained us to succeed him on the throne,’ Candace replied, ‘to be queens. Not brawling fighters. But it is first blood to me. Why do you taunt me? You have the advantage, you have the shield. And it is I who…’
She broke off.
‘Always you tormented me when we were young, always you conspired to be Father’s favourite..!’ Queen Azo shrieked, running at her.
Candace leapt back. Azo’s spear flashed. There was a crack of wood on wood as Candace parried the thrust with a swing of her spear – but the queen’s spear-point ploughed up her bare arm and fleshed itself in her shoulder, beneath the leopard skin. Blood flooded out.
Candace staggered backwards. Azo raised the spear to plunge it into Candace’s heart. As the spear whizzed down, Candace flung herself to the wet ground, rolled over and over… to sprawl prostrate at the feet of an anthropophage warrior.
Grinning a sharp-toothed grin, the man lifted his spear to despatch Candace. She scrabbled for her own but she had lost it when she dropped to the wet ground.
Automatically, Marcus stepped forward as if to intercede. But it was futile; he was too far away, on the other side of the ring of watchers, to achieve anything. Candace rolled forwards to dodge the spear thrust, grabbed the anthropophage by the ankles and pulled him off-balance.
Then she scrambled to her feet, snatched up the anthropophage’s much bigger spear, kicked him with savage accuracy as he tried to rise, then turned and advanced on her open-mouthed sister.
Queen Azo retreated under Candace’s onslaught. At last there was nowhere for her to go; behind her was only the edge of the fortress crag.
Candace levelled her spear.
‘Stand and fight, sister,’ she snarled. ‘There is nowhere to go. We are surrounded by water on this rock, marooned.’
Marcus saw that it was true. Although the rain was easing off and the waters no longer flooded past them, they had subsided into the spreading waters of a swamp, from which rose the half-drowned trees of the forest.
The cavern beyond the abyss would be impassable now. Their only hope for escape lay beyond the escarpment and through the Mountains of the Moon – to the kingdom of Axum; Queen Azo’s empire.
Crocodilopards and other saurians swam through the swamp waters as if nothing had happened. The rain receded into drizzle. Winged serpents circled above.
Queen Azo sneered.
‘You think you’ve won,’ she said. ‘But it is you who will be marooned here until you die!’
She flung down her own spear, turned, and slithered like a crocodile down the rock. Seeing this, the anthropophagi rushed to the side to join her.
Candace turned jubilantly, and raised her spear high. As the anthropophagi leapt over the side in imitation of their queen, the huntress cried to the heavens.
‘She has drowned! There is no escape from this swamp! Now I am queen of Axum!’
Marcus stepped to her side.
‘Congratulations,’ he said ironically, ‘but we’re still stuck here. And where’s Didius Seneca?’
Candace smiled carelessly. ‘We shall remain here until the end of the wet season,’ she said. ‘We’ll survive somehow. Fish, perhaps. The pigmies will know how. The old Roman? He was a captive of the anthropophagi.’
Marcus scanned the rock. The rain had passed for the moment, but he had a feeling that it would return with a vengeance. Except for them, the pigmies and the tortoise-crocodiles, it was bare.
Denk shouted something in his own tongue. He pointed towards the waters of the swamp. Candace turned and cursed. Marcus followed her gaze.
Sitting on a long, floating log that had clearly been torn up by its roots when the floodwaters came, paddling through the drizzle falling upon the open waters towards the trees of the swamp, was the whole band of anthropophagi, all carrying elephant tusks over their shoulders.
Sitting at the prow of this primitive vessel was the anthropophage Marcus had seen sneaking away before. Behind him was the distinctive form of Queen Azo. Between them, bedraggled and downcast, was the white bearded old senator, Didius Seneca, a prisoner.
Candace flung down her spear in rage. She shook a fist at the escaping figures. Queen Azo caught sight of her, and waved back tauntingly.
‘Remain there until you die, sister!’ The queen’s voice drifted across the waters of the swamp. ‘I return to Axum! I return to Axum and my throne, which your rump shall never press! Farewell!’
‘Where did they find that log?’ Marcus demanded.
Depressed, Candace sat down on an outcrop. The rains had ceased. ‘What matters it? They have escaped. And now we will remain her until the waters go. Months. We’ll not survive it.’
‘You seemed optimistic before,’ Marcus commented.
‘That was before I knew my sister still lived.’ Candace ground her teeth in frustration. ‘Even if I survive, I will have to fight her again to reclaim my throne.’
‘Let’s see if there is another log,’ Marcus suggested. ‘If there is, we could escape the same way. I don’t rate very highly our chances of surviving the rainy season up here. Not us and Denk’s people too. It won’t be long before we’re weak from hunger. And those winged serpents are keeping a watch on us.’
But as much as they strained their eyes on every side, no more logs floated past. Marcus looked around in despair. There was no way the pigmy legion could survive up here for the entire rainy season.
Three pigmies rushed to the side and leapt in, ignoring Denk’s urgent calls.
‘Deserters,’ Candace muttered.
‘Perhaps they know what they’re doing,’ Marcus said. ‘They live in this valley, after all.’
‘Denk doesn’t seem to think so,’ Candace commented, watching the desperately swimming figures.
All of a sudden, reptilian jaws rose from the waters and fixed around one pigmy warrior. Screaming, he was dragged into the water. The other two kept swimming.
One vanished beneath the water shortly after. The third reached the trees into which the anthropophagi’s log had passed uneventfully and vanished from sight, but shortly afterwards Marcus heard a guttural cry followed by the threshing sound of struggle. Followed by nothing at all.
Only the ripples spreading across the otherwise tranquil waters of the swamp.
‘We can’t go that way,’ Marcus said heavily. The swamp waters must be alive with lethal saurian life. He looked around despairingly. Nothing but Candace, the pigmies, and the tortoise-crocodiles; they sat there stolidly chewing the cud like huge, scaly, armour-plated cattle.
Then one tortoise-crocodile grew restless and began to lumber forwards. The pigmy mahout shouted and beat at it with his spear butt, but this made no impression on the armoured saurian. The pigmy yelled in alarm as he saw that his mount was lumbering obstinately towards the edge of the crag and the swamp waters that lapped at the rock.
‘What’s got into that monster?’ Marcus asked, troubled.
Candace shook her head. ‘These beasts are practically brainless,’ she said as more pigmies rushed forward and tried vainly to restrain the tortoise-crocodile. ‘This one has grown weary of its imprisonment on the fortress crag.’
The pigmy mahout leapt off the back of the beast as despite the efforts of him and his fellow pigmies, it trudged out into the waters. Marcus watched in horror, expecting the huge mass of bone and scale to sink like a stone into the murky swamp waters.
To his surprise and that of Candace, the tortoise-crocodile began to paddle with its great stout legs. Soon it was powering through the water towards the trees at a rate of knots, like a small, armoured war galley.
As it vanished into them, Marcus and Candace exchanged glances.
Marcus was baffled. ‘How can a creature so big and heavy float across the water like that?’
One of the two remaining tortoise-crocodiles lifted up its mace-like tail and broke wind loudly. The pigmies laughed and chattered and flapped hands at their noses in comic disgust.
Candace shrugged. ‘They eat masses of vegetation,’ she said. ‘It must turn to gas in their bellies. Perhaps that’s what keeps them afloat.’
Marcus scowled. This didn’t seem very likely to him. It was the kind of unscientific explanation for natural phenomena he should expect from a barbarian. Yet he could think of no rational explanation; creatures that came from the element Earth could not float so easily on the element Water. He wondered what the Elder Pliny would have said.
‘This gives us a chance,’ he said, ‘even if it doesn’t make sense. The water creatures attacked those pigmies, but not the anthropophagi on the log. They must only go for individual swimmers…’
‘So if we cross the waters on the tortoise-crocodiles…’ Candace began.
‘Exactly,’ said Marcus. ‘Talk to Denk about it.’
But the pigmy had got there ahead of him.
He was marshalling his fellow pigmies, most of whom scrambled aboard the two remaining tortoise-crocodiles who still squatted happily on the warm rock. The armoured saurians accepted this indignity stoically.
Denk turned and spoke to Candace, ushering her towards one of the beasts, Marcus to the other. Candace climbed gingerly aboard and sat with her long sleek legs dangling down around its horned head. Marcus copied her, using the fringe of spikes that surrounded the placid beast as a step up, with the aid of the pigmies who crewed it, and sat at the front.
Denk and the few remaining pigmies still on the rock urged the two tortoise-crocodiles to rise with shouts and kicks. Grunting, they rose, and twitched their spiked-club tails, then after further urging lumbered towards the water’s-edge. Denk and the remaining pigmies leapt up onto Candace’s beast just before the two saurians plunged into the turbid swamp waters and began to paddle towards the trees like huge turtles, leaving behind them a wake of bubbles.
Candace laughed and shouted across to Marcus.
‘What do you think of them now?’ she cried. ‘Do you still think it’s impossible for them to swim?’
‘Obviously not,’ he snapped back. ‘But hadn’t we getter keep an eye out for your sister and her anthropophagi? Where have they gone?’
‘I should think they are heading for the escarpment,’ Candace told him, suddenly looking sombre. ‘They will want to return to Axum now that the waters have risen early.’
Marcus turned and peered through the trees. Now they were passing into the forested part of the swamp, following the same direction that they had taken on foot so many times before. He could see glimpses of the escarpment through the vegetation. The great tidal wave that he had seen burst over it when the waters rose had reduced to a torrent, much larger than the waterfall they had become used to but not as wild and uncontrolled as the sudden deluge that had swamped the valley.
Had Queen Azo’s group already scaled the escarpment? Or were they still paddling through the swamp, among the trees somewhere ahead?
He saw something huge and ruddy-scaled through the trees up ahead, and realised that it was the creature that had attacked and killed Behemoth on their entrance into the lost valley. It waded through the trees silently, its teeth bared in a terrible grin. Now it turned to look towards the two paddling tortoise-crocodiles; it watched as they passed, but made no attempt to attack the saurian war machines or the pigmies on their backs.
At another point the trees receded into what would have been the clearing where they had seen the plate-backed titans. There was no sign of them, and it saddened Marcus to think they might have been drowned in the deluge; there had been something oddly endearing about the great lumbering beasts with their tiny bird heads. In their place, a small group of crocodilopards played and splashed. He watched them in delight.
Then he tried to imagine one of the creatures in the arena of the Colosseum, faced with mounted venators. It would have no chance, just like the camelopards before it. These crocodilopards were not the ferocious monsters the emperor expected. If Marcus was to fulfil his mission, and the only reason he had to do that now was the knowledge that his wife and son were still in danger, he would have to find a more terrible kind of lizard.
Winged serpents flitted through the cloudy skies. All around the floating log the swamp was bristling with life. Marcus had never known a place so fecund, so prolific in life. As the tortoise-crocodiles paddled on, he mentally compared it with the blood-soaked sands of the amphitheatre, where death reigned, not life, where exotic beasts from the far-flung corners of the empire and beyond were dragged to die in terrible torment and agony, where even that most vicious animal, Man, fought and died for the entertainment of others.
A squawking and hooting and the splashing of some struggling creature unlucky enough to be set upon by another drifted across the swamp, reminding Marcus that death was no stranger here. But surely it was better to die in this stinking, rotting swamp than live in the stinking, rotting heart of Rome.
At last they came out into the open, beneath the towering heights of the escarpment. To their right, the waters poured down from the flooded lake above. To their left, Solomon’s Staircase wound back and forth up the side of the escarpment. Bobbing in the water at its foot was a large log.
‘There it is!’ Candace called, pointing.
Marcus nodded. He craned his neck to peer up at the winding staircase. Where were Queen Azo and her anthropophagi?
He was startled by a sudden scream of rage from halfway up the second flight. He whipped his head up. There they were! Dark figures, carrying gleaming yellow ivory tusks, trudging up the stairway. Two of them dragged a white figure between them; the old senator. Standing on the edge was a diminutive, angry figure that Marcus recognised as Queen Azo. She stood there shaking her fist in anger. Then she grabbed a spear from one of her anthropophagi and flung it.
Fascinated, Marcus followed with his eye as the spear swooped down like a hawk. The weapon grew closer and closer as the two tortoise-crocodiles floated in the swamp water. He was mesmerised by it. It seemed to be plunging straight towards him. He felt paralysed. The pigmies were staring up as well. The tortoise-crocodile paddled onwards.
The spear hissed into the water and sank. The spell was broken. Marcus shook his head and turned to stare at Candace.
Candace shouted out to the pigmies. They took out their bows and fit arrows to them. Marcus stared critically at the scene. The anthropophagi were a long way up. They had the drop on his allies. The pigmies had no chance.
But the anthropophagi had stopped moving, and were lined along Solomon’s Staircase as if they wanted to die. Queen Azo shouted at them but the wind whipped her words away. The pigmies loosed a volley and the arrows clattered futilely against the rock of the escarpment far below the monumental staircase.
The anthropophagi flung rocks and stones down into the waters. These splashed into the water all around the two paddling tortoise-crocodiles. Several pigmies were knocked from the beasts and vanished into the murky waters.
‘Down here we’re in no position to kill them,’ Candace shouted across to Marcus, her hands held up to ward off any falling rocks.
‘We need to take the fight to them!’ Marcus replied.
He was terrified for his life but exultant. All they had to do was pursue the anthropophagi up Solomon’s Staircase and kill them. Then the war would be over. Didius Seneca would be rescued. Candace would be able to retake her throne. The pigmies would help Marcus and Didius Seneca capture a crocodilopard and Candace had promised to help them ship it to Rome.
All they had to do was defeat Queen Azo.
Candace nodded. The hail of rocks ended as the anthropophagi scrabbled round for more missiles. During this respite, Candace directed the pigmies to guide their mounts over to the lowest unflooded step of Solomon’s Staircase.
Marcus jumped down onto the rock.
‘What are you doing?’ Candace demanded.
He turned to her. ‘We’ve got to get up there!’
Candace patted the armoured hide of her tortoise-crocodile, which was shaking off the water that drenched it. ‘Stay mounted. We’ll get there quicker like this.’
Under encouragement from the pigmies, the two tortoise-crocodiles lumbered up Solomon’s Staircase. Rocks and stones hailed down from the second flight where the anthropophagi crowded. Marcus winced as rocks smashed into pigmies on either side of him. A rain of little stones caught him on his shoulder and he fell back. Heaving himself up with his left arm, he held his right up to ward off more missiles.
Candace’s beast was in the lead. Marcus saw that half the pigmies had been knocked from the back. Several were sprawled on the steps that Marcus’ own mount clambered over. Others, still conscious, ran behind Candace’s mount trying to keep up. As Marcus came closer to them he shouted at them, and indicated his own mount.
At last, after another lethal rain of stones that killed several more pigmies and drew blood from Candace’s scalp, they reached the landing and turned around. Ahead of them the second flight led straight up to the lake; the boulder had gone now and Marcus remembered the pigmies were going to move it before marching into the lower valley. But before they reached the top, Queen Azo and the anthropophagi stood lined up across the steps halfway up, shields locked, spears bristling.
‘Charge!’ shouted Candace. ‘Shoot as we charge!’ She repeated her orders in the language the pigmies spoke.
The pigmy mahouts urged the two saurians on and they began to scale the new flight of stone steps as more missiles rained down from the lines of anthropophagi. By now, it seemed to Marcus that half of their pigmies were dead of incapacitated.
But as they charged, the pigmies on the backs of the monsters fit arrows to their bow and retaliated. Most of the arrows sank into the heavy hippopotamus-hide shields or even bounced off. Two or three anthropophagi fell and went rolling down the steps, riddled with arrows. But it seemed desperate to Marcus.
The anthropophagi stood their ground as the mounted pigmies advanced. Candace shouted another order and the pigmies fit more stone-tipped arrows to their bows. More missiles hailed down. Marcus saw that behind the line of spearmen were other anthropophagi and it was them who were throwing the missiles. He could see no sign of Didius Seneca. He ground his teeth. More pigmies fell from the monster’s back to sprawl on the steps. Even if they were to slaughter the anthropophagi who had tormented them, they would win victory at a heavy price.
At last the first tortoise-crocodile, the one ridden by Candace, crashed into the anthropophagi lines. They smashed through. Anthropophagi fell on either side. Those on the right pitched screaming over the edge and fell towards the spreading waters below. Weighed down by their burdens of ivory, they sank without a struggle.
Marcus felt exultant. Now the surviving anthropophagi were fleeing up the steps, led by Queen Azo. The pigmies loosed more arrows. More anthropophagi fell to tumble over the side. At last only two remained, with Queen Azo.
A pigmy archer shot one down and he fell over the side like the rest. The other was carrying a pale bundle which he put down on the step beside Queen Azo. Glimpsing a white beard, Marcus realised it must be Didius Seneca. Was he dead? Or unconscious?
Queen Azo and her companion turned. Azo produced a long knife.
‘Well, sister!’ she shrilled. ‘Will you have me killed by your pigmies? Or will you fight me yourself?’
Candace gave an order and the pigmy mahouts dragged both tortoise-crocodiles to a halt. Staggering slightly, Candace walked up to where Queen Azo stood, long knife in one hand, shield in the other. She hefted her spear.
‘So eager to die?’ she asked.
In reply, Queen Azo lunged with her knife.
Candace brought up her spear with both hands to knock the blow away. Queen Azo shoved into her with the big shield and she staggered back towards the edge of the great stone staircase. From where Marcus sat watching restlessly, he could see that one false step would send her plunging down the side of the escarpment.
Even if she hit the steps below it would be with enough force to shatter her bones… and if her trajectory plunged her into the swamp… Marcus could now see that where the ivory-carrying anthropophagi had sank, the waters now bubbled and seethed with dark shapes.
But Candace recovered. She brought her spear up and thrust it. Queen Azo blocked the blow with her shield. Candace thrust again; again Queen Azo checked the attack with her thick, heavy shield. Candace thrust from another angle and Queen Azo swung another blow at her with the long knife. Candace leapt aside and they circled on the steps until Candace had her back to the face of the escarpment.
She lunged once again, but with more force. Again Queen Azo lifted her shield up wearily to meet the blow. Candace thrust with enough force to penetrate the hippopotamus hide. Queen Azo wrenched her shield back and tore the spear from Candace’s hands. With the weight, Queen Azo overbalanced, slipped, stumbled, and went toppling over the side to vanish with a splash into the waters far below.
At once the threshing of scaly fins broke the water. Marcus saw Queen Azo’s screaming face break the surface once, a mask of blood. It vanished again and Marcus saw no more of her.
The one surviving anthropophage panicked at his mistress’ fate, turned, scooped up Didius Seneca’s unmoving body, and began running up the stone steps towards the top. Marcus seized a spear from one of the pigmies, levelled it, and flung it.
It caught him on his left shoulder and he fell to the steps, dropping Didius Seneca with a thump, dropping the elephant tusk he had also been carrying. Looking up with his eyes flashing fear, he tore the small spear from his shoulder and ran up the steps, through the archway and out of sight.
The elephant tusk bumped down the steps to land almost at Candace’s feet.
Again it began to rain.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK